Jordan Magnuson's picture

When it comes to videogames, I consider myself a maker first and foremost. That being said, I see theory and practice as deeply interconnected, and have always loved engaging others on topics related to interactive media and videogames (as the old articles and critiques on this site attest).

Over this last Year of Covid, I have missed giving talks and guest lectures on these topics, which I used to do with some regularity. So I’ve decided to make more of an effort to connect with people over Zoom. 

If you are an educator, and would be interested in having me give a talk, guest lecture, or lead a workshop over Zoom, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I am also available for curriculum consultation, and advisory committee work. I love connecting with faculty and students, discussing art and design, and challenging peoples’ assumptions about videogames.

I have experience giving presentations and talks at universities, high schools, and places like IndieCade and Google; I have also created, taught, and served as advisor for a variety of classes at the university and high school levels.

As you might guess from my body of work, I have a particular interest in how the most basic elements of interaction and representation can be used to craft meaning and impact in games, and in using games to tackle difficult subjects and complex emotions. But more broadly, I am happy to engage almost any topic related to game design, interactive media, computational media, nonlinear media, hypertext, serious games, art games, or the poetics of games.

A small sampling of talks that I have given and can readily adapt include:

  • Videogames Are Not Games—And Why That Matters
  • Towards a Poetics of the Lyric for Videogames
  • The Poetics of Games or: Another Lens For Thinking About the Expressive Potential of Digital/Computational/Interactive media.
  • Beyond Ludology and Narratology: Other Lenses for Videogames
  • Towards a Broad Conception of Computational Poetry
  • Designing Richly Metaphoric Games
  • Designing for Complex Emotions
  • Holistic Prototyping

If any of this interests you, please be in touch! You can reach me by email at , or shoot me a message on Twitter.

Jordan Magnuson's picture

Ten years ago I made a little Flash game called Loneliness. Today I’m releasing an HTML5 port of the game, so that it can live on once Flash reaches end of life later this month. 

Loneliness is probably the best evidence I can give from my past work to support the point that it is sometimes worth putting things out in the world, rather than keeping them rotting on a hard drive somewhere. I don’t say this lightly, because these days I keep a lot of work rotting on a hard drive somewhere, too precious to be let out to the world. 

I made Loneliness at a time when I was not so self-conscious. I made the game in four hours after a moment of inspiration, and decided to go ahead and put it online because why not. Had I known how many people were going to play it, I would not have uploaded it on such a whim. I would have put more sweat and blood into it, would have made it better. Oh so much better. I tell myself.

But that’s how things go. People sometimes yell at me in all caps, angry that they were conned into playing the game by some top ten list or other. I tell them that I understand. I don’t know why Loneliness ended up on those lists either. Personally I don’t think it’s my best work. But that’s how things go. 

When I uploaded Loneliness ten years ago, I thought it would get a few plays at best. The idea that I might run into people in the wild ten years later who had played the game and been moved by it never even crossed my mind. 

I think that the way things played out was largely dependent on accident: right time, right place, yada yada. Who knows. I’ve made a lot of games over the last ten years, and most of them don’t really get noticed. But I do think putting work out there is an important first step. If I had kept Loneliness on my hard drive ten years ago, no one ever would have played it.

And I realize that sounds kind of… cute. If you’re a creator and you’re already doing this (putting work out there) but nobody is noticing: I’m sorry. I wish they would. And I don’t have a magic spell for right time, right place, yada, yada. But I applaud you for doing what you’re doing. Because it’s not easy. For me, releasing work has always been hard, and it has only gotten harder. 

But I’m glad I put Loneliness out there. Even if I sometimes wish people would play my other games, I’m mostly honored that they’ve chosen to play one. So thank you to everyone who’s played it, from Gregory Weir and James Portnow (whose kind words early on fueled my desire to keep making weird games), to all the lovers and haters on Newgrounds. It’s been a ride.

Oh yeah, and I’ve George Lucased the end screen. This was never supposed to be a "message game." Oops.

Loneliness screenshot

Jordan Magnuson's picture

Today I’m releasing an HTML5 port of my tiny documentary game, Freedom Bridge—which was no longer readily playable online due to the Death of Flash. 

Freedom Bridge is special to me for a number of reasons. I made the game ten years ago, while living and teaching in South Korea, after a visit to the Korean demilitarized zone. While at the DMZ and was touched particularly by the sight of the game’s namesake, "Freedom Bridge": a bridge spanning the Imjin river between the two Koreas that is enclosed by barbed wire and surrounded by prayers and tokens left by those unable to reach their loved ones on the other side. 

I went home from that trip and made a tiny little Flash game. To my surprise, the game received a warm response despite (or because of?) its utter simplicity and lack of typical gameplay elements. It was showcased by Extra Credits, and Patrick Klepek even wrote up an entire spread about the game for EGMi.

That was the start of my now 10+ year journey dabbling in experimental game creation. The interest people showed in Freedom Bridge inspired me to make Loneliness, and later spurred me to drop everything and set out on my Gametrekking project: a year-long Kickstarter-funded journey around Asia where I attempted to make small games inspired by my experiences (to use experimental videogames as a kind of travel writing)—you can play the games that came out of that journey here.

I now have mixed feelings about the documentary nature of Freedom Bridge (and my other Gametrekking games), but it still holds a special place in my heart, and I hope this HTML5 port will enable more people to experience this little piece of my game-making history.

Thanks for reading, and playing!

Freedom Bridge

Jordan Magnuson's picture

"Videogame development is the journal of a sea animal living on land, wanting to fly in the air. Videogame design is a search for interactions to shoot at the barriers of the unknown and the unknowable. It is a phantom script telling how rainbows are made and why they go away."

—Carl Sandburg (adapted)

Ishmael screenshot

Ishmael

Created with: Twine

Play now: Play in browser

A short multimedia-enhanced hypertext game about perpetual cycles of displacement and violence, as seen through the lens of a child. Takes about 15 minutes to read/play, and no gaming skills are required.

Ishmael debuted at the 2017 Spring Thing interactive fiction festival, was selected to be showcased at the PixelPop Festival in St. Louis, was nominated for the "Best Social Impact Game" award at BIG: Brazil’s Independent Games Festival, was an IndieCade Finalist, and was shortlisted for the 2017 New Media Writing Prize

Discussion and Reactions: IFDB, Newgrounds.

 

Some kind words:

Magnuson is extensively familiar with the history of interactive fiction, including parser IF… That craft and theoretical groundwork are on display in Ishmael (Emily Short, creator of Galatea and Savoir-Faire).

This is really, really well done (Math Brush, interactive fiction author and critic).

On the flip side:

I would never call something I made with Twine a game in any sense of the word (Newgrounds review).

 

Find a bug? Please let me know

Ms. Lojka or: In Despair to Will to Be Oneself screenshot

Ms. Lojka or: In Despair to Will to Be Oneself

Created with: Twine

Play now: Play in browser

A short hypertext exploration of psychosis, about ignorance, defiance, and freedom—or: self-knowledge, acquiescence, and fate. Takes about 15 minutes to play. There are two significantly-divergent endings, but replays are intentionally discouraged.

Ms. Lojka was exhibited at the 2016 Spring Thing interactive fiction festival, and was selected as a finalist for the 2016 New Media Writing Prize

Discussion and Reactions: IFDBNewgroundsItch.io.

 

Some kind words:

A Work of (Dark) Art… 9/10 (Jacqueline A. Lott, interactive fiction author and critic).

I can only see this working as the perception of a pathological narrator or a non-literal story of inner exploration. For what it’s worth, it works very well in that capacity (Newgrounds review).

On the flip side:

A technical marvel with a disjointed story about identity (Math Brush, interactive fiction author and critic).

I don’t understand anything that you’re trying to say through this game. Not a single thing. (Xavier, NG Comments).

Find a bug? Please let me know

Jordan Magnuson's picture

A couple of weeks ago I brought my Gametrekking project to completion with the release of a downloadable collection of all the travel-inspired sketches I’ve created to date. I thought I’d go ahead and copy my retrospective blog post over here. 

What about my writing? Will I start reviewing games again, now that the Gametrekking project is over? I’m thinking about it. Meanwhile, here’s my retrospective:

Today I am releasing the Gametrekking Omnibus, a downloadable collection of all of my Gametrekking creations to date. It is my tenth release of the Gametrekking project, and it will also be my final "official" release.

Gametrekking Omnibus splash screen

The omnibus includes an interface that lets you browse through all of my creations by country, some built-in slideshows to provide context, links to my written reflections, and new fullscreen versions of all my games and notgames.

To download the Gametrekking Omnibus For Windows:

  • Download and run the native exe installer. Note that you need to be connected to the internet during installation, and it may take a while if you do not already have Adobe Air installed.

To download the Gametrekking Omnibus For Mac OS:

  1. Download and install Adobe Air from http://get.adobe.com/air.
  2. Download and run the Gametrekking Omnibus air file.

Gametrekking Omnibus screenshot

This is going to be the final official release of the Gametrekking project, because it’s been two years since the project launched, I’ve clearly finished "the journey proper," and a downloadable collection of the work I’ve managed to produce so far seems like as good a place to wrap things up as any. I say this is the "official" end of Gametrekking, because I see the project continuing on indefinitely in some sense… It seems certain that I will keep traveling into the future in some capacity or another, and that I will continue to experiment with interactive sketches and notgames about the things that impact me. But still, I think the Kickstarter project deserves some kind of closure, and that’s what I’ve tried to create with this downloadable collection.

When I launched this project two years ago on Kickstarter I didn’t know if I was going to be able to successfully fund it, but was soon amazed by the support and generosity of the family members, friends, internet acquaintances, and complete strangers who pledged their support, and made this thing a reality.

Once the project was funded, I still didn’t know if it was going to be a success or not—or even how to judge it as such. All I had was a backpack, a half-formed itinerary of shoestring travel through a few countries in Asia, and a vague plan to make interactive sketches about the things that impacted me along the way—to try and use experimental computer games as a kind of "travel writing," whatever that would mean.

The journey turned out to be incredibly challenging—but also incredibly rewarding. I struggled to fulfill my naïve promise of making computer games from the road while attempting to balance the day-to-day requirements of independent travel (where I seldom knew where I would be spending the night from one day to the next, much less whether I would have access to the internet), but the experiences I had along the way, and the people I met, more than made up for the difficulties. Hitching a ride with some fishermen on Taiwan’s east coast; seeing the Killing Fields of Cambodia with my own eyes; discussing the merits of Facebook with a college student in the Mekong Delta… these are experiences that I would not trade for anything.

Hitchhiking in Taiwan

Hitchhiking on Taiwan’s East Coast.

But still I am left with the question, as the project draws to a close, of whether Gametrekking was a "success." On a personal level I can look back and see that my life has been irreversibly enriched by my travels and my coding; I tried to capture some of the ways in my travel writing. Which is fine and well, but I don’t want to conflate the project with the journey (however hard it is to separate the two in my mind): the journey was personal, but the project was funded, and of a corporate nature. The question is complicated by the fact that I never defined what "success" for Gametrekking would look like, as such. Partly this was, perhaps, an oversight, but partly it was the nature of the beast: the entire venture has always existed as a kind of "leap of faith," both for myself, and for my backers—a project of possibility, of seeing what would come of a crazy, uncertain idea.

Does one consider success quantitatively, or qualitatively? When I think in terms of quantity, I cannot help but be disappointed: I wish I had a hundred creations to show for my efforts, rather than ten small offerings. I think of all the failed prototypes, and consider mounting them for display, to create a bigger catalog: I wanted to make something for every country that I traveled through, after all, and if I published my failed experiments, I could get there, and then some. But I cannot do it, because I cannot see this thing as an attempt to make a flash game for every country in Asia, like some kind of bizarre interactive Lonely Planet collection. Rather, the games have always been about expressing something personal, for me, even though they are merely sketches and doodles. And so I struggle more than I should with each one, and throw too many prototypes away, and come back too often empty-handed.

Prototype screenshot

An early prototype for "The Great Moped Balancing Act", one of many creations I never published.

Still, I can try and point to other numbers in an attempt at vindication: I can say that my Gametrekking creations, while few, have together been played nearly half a million times, that they have appeared on the front page of Newgrounds, been featured in Wired and EGMi, been used for psychology research…

But such claims ring hollow. If the goal of Gametrekking were big numbers, then making sketchy notgames about the kindness of strangers, or visiting your grandmother’s tomb, becomes a laughable waste of time.

Slightly more to the point, perhaps, is the "why" behind the figures: the fact that Newgrounds creator Tom Fulp found two of my sketches interesting enough to feature on his front page despite the fact that they are light-years away from the fare his audience is typically expecting, to expose them to something different. Or the fact that the folks at Extra Credits considered my small notgame "Loneliness" worthy of spearheading two episodes of their show, as a glimpse of something interactive creations should strive for. Or the fact that Patrick Klepek wrote up "The Killer" for Giant Bomb, because he found it a breath of fresh air in a world of "power fantasy" video games. This kind of qualitative assessment is a measure of success that I am vaguely interested in.

But we’re largely still in the land of vainglory. I enjoy a little spotlight as much as the next person, but I hope it’s not why I do what I do, and as such, I’m not willing to accept it as a measure of success.

What’s left?

Just the regular people who play my games, and the notes I get from them. A lot of these are negative. A lot of them tell me to go do something hateful to myself, because I’ve wasted somebody’s time. But every once in a while I get a message like this one regarding "Freedom Bridge":

I just registered on this forum to tell you that this was one of the most intense interactive experiences I’ve ever had. I went on and watched some short documentaries about Korea afterwards in order to process the tension it had left me with.

Or this one in response to "The Killer":

I have seldom experienced such raw emotion from a video game. I have traveled to a few of the places featured in your games and learnt a small proportion of their history in the process. however, after playing each game I had to research more and more and more. Thank you for making such simplistic and emotionally provoking games!

Or this one, about "Grandmother":

Unforgettable. Simple and stunning. Kinda reminds you not to forget about the one’s you’ve lost.

Or this one, posted on the Newgrounds page for "The Heart Attack":

Something I’d like to say… Jordan, your ‘notgames’ have done something. They hack and slash at the curtains we put up to shield ourselves from the ugly truth. That in reality, evil is decided by the individual. Among other messages. This, and your other games have a simple brutality, depressing and dark. But it’s also deeply informative and touching. They’ve given true insight on the human range of emotions, I’d say. I know that these short notgames you create bring out the best in my character. Make me sad, make me happy and many times, severely upset. I know I’ve learned from you, as many others could say they have. So please, keep on trekking. I want to learn more.

Or this one, about "Loneliness":

Thank you for that gaming experience… I had to get an account JUST so I can thank you for it… somewhere when the dots were slowing down, I said to myself, "I don’t want to go near them… I don’t want them to leave too" and I honestly Cried. I have never had to set the metaphysical controller down, and take in that level of emotion. I then realized that the game was called "Loneliness", and I started to reach back into my own memories of not being able to fit in at school, and then I realized that I needed to try ONE least time. The same thing happened in Life, and I am currently married to the only Girl that wouldn’t reject me, in the end of all that loneliness. I, again, thank you for that wonderful experience. Thank you… SO MUCH for this moment of self-reflection.

Or this one on, "Status Quo’s" Newgrounds page:

Taiwan… That is my home…!! Thank you for making such a project about our precious little island. I really appreciate it.^^

Or this one, in response to "The Kindness of Strangers":

Wonderful story, it’s almost surreal. Being born and raised in the more impoverish parts of the states, the only thing I’ve ever known from people is deception, greed, and hatred.

I don’t post these here for a whoop-dee-doo congratulations, or a pat on the back. I post them to share with you honestly why I consider the Gametrekking project to have been a success. I post them for those of you who backed my project, and wanted it to come to something.

Ultimately, regardless of how many games I make, I have to ask myself why I’m making them; if there’s not a good reason, I don’t care if I’ve made ten or a hundred. I find the numbers, whether of games, or of plays, to be abstract and meaningless in and of themselves. Likewise, the front-page mentions and five minutes of fame quickly fade. It’s comments like the ones above that keep me going. At the end of the day I don’t care about the ratio of negative comments to positive ones: only that the positive ones exist. In my mind, if my Gametrekking creations got one person to look up the conflict between North and South Korea, got one person to remember their grandmother, got one person to believe that Taiwan’s a real place, or got one person to reflect on the nature of isolation, then the project was a success. So I have to consider it a success. I can’t force my definition on anyone else, but I do hope that my backers will agree with me.

It’s been a wonderful journey, and I thank you all from the bottom of my heart.

-Jordan

5 Colors Pandora screenshot

5 Colors Pandora

Created with: Game Maker 8

Download for: Windows

Source: Game Maker 8

An exploration game about colors and their consequences. Not particularly long, but a bit more difficult than my usual offerings. Hints are included in the download, and a complete video playthrough is available on YouTube (thanks Ortoslon).

5 Colors Pandora was originally made for Ludum Dare 16, where it came in 9th (out of 121 entries)… it was later entered into the 6th Gamer Maker Competition, where it made the final 15 (out of 275 entries).

Discussion and Reactions: TIGForums, Ludum DareYoYo GamesIndieGames.com.

 

Some kind words:

[One of] a selection of games released in 2010 which I absolutely loved (Terry Cavanagh, creator of VVVVVV and Super Hexagon).

One word: GENIUS! (Atomic, LD Feedback).

Absolutely brilliant… I liked this game so much that, when I accidentally quit the game by hitting escape trying to pause when I got a phone call near the very end, I played it all the way through again just to finish (Philomory, LD Feedback).

Astonishing (Sos, LD Feedback).

Unique and intriguing (Frimkron, LD Feedback).

Deceptively deep (SonnyBone, LD Feedback).

The best game I have seen in this competition so far in every aspect (Risko, LD Feedback).

On the flip side:

Meh. Nice atmosphere, but lots of backtracking and the ending… pff (Anonymous, IndieGames.com comments).

Find a bug? Please let me know

Walk or Die screenshot

Walk or Die

Created with: AS3/FlashPunk

Play now: Play in browser

More poem than game, Walk or Die is a study in the most minimalistic interaction I could think of. Does it  deserve to be called "interactive" at all? You decide. Made for the TIGSource "A Game By Its Cover" competition; you can see the cart that inspired it here.

In 2014 Walk or Die was exhibited in a Madrid art exhibition curated by Andrés Oliva and Daniel Alonso.

Discuss at the Notgames Forums, FlashPunk Forums, or TIGForums.

 

Some kinds words:

Nice! (Michaël Samyn, co-creator of Sunset and The Path).

I played it for at least ten minutes, while walking on my treadmill :D… I really like it (axcho, Notgames Forums).

It made me think about a lot of things for the 20 minutes I held the spacebar down. Mostly about mortality and solitude (Albert L., NG Comments).

Thirty… minutes… addicted. Something about this was just so… tranquil (Reetva, TIGForums).

On the flip side:

This game is exactly what I expected it to be. Which is kind of disappointing, really (Soulliard, TIGForums).

Find a bug? Please let me know

Loneliness screenshot

An experimental, minimalistic microgame about loneliness, made for the Korean middle school students I taught for a year. 

Loneliness was an official selection of the Extra Credits Innovation Awards 2011, in the category of Narrative Delivery. It was also the focus of episode 25 of Extra Credits season 4: Mechanics as Metaphor.

In 2012 Loneliness was featured in CURA.

Discussion and Reactions: Ludum DareNotgames Forums, TIGForumsFlashPunk ForumsNewgrounds, Kongregate, TwitterIndieGames.com.

This game was ported to HTML5 in 2020. The end screen has been notably changed, as described here. For those interested, the original Flash version of Loneliness from 2010 can be downloaded here (it can still be played with a variety of Flash players).

 

Some kind words:

Affected me the first time, and even more strongly the second (Gregory Weir, creator of Necropolis and The Majesty of Colors).

What’s amazing about it is that it undeniably has a narrative, even though it features no words… but what’s more incredible to me is how different that narrative can be for different people… This game not only tries to put us in the emotional state of that crushing loneliness… but it lets us explore it, and this to me is the unique power games have (James Portnow, co-creator of the Extra Credits video lesson series).

Made me really really really really really really really really really sad inside (Elspeth, NG Comments).

Worth every second (PlayIndieGames.Wordpress.com).

I can’t say that this game makes me feel particularly lonely, or particularly sad. But what it does do (very well, I think), is force me to make a decision: will I continue to engage, even though I KNOW it’s fruitless, or will I give up? And that question, I think, is profound. Because that IS what loneliness feels like: a never ending pattern of rejection. A hopeless state which will not change. And the only choices are to despair (to move, alone, into the dark), or to continue to pour out energy in what we believe (what we feel we KNOW) to be a pointless endeavor. What I loved about the game was that it demonstrated that, despite my knowledge of futility, I couldn’t choose isolation (AmelMag, NG Comments).

On the flip side:

This game is reminiscent of art… though I don’t think it would be considered particularly good art (Marshall Honorof, Twitter).

Ye gods, it’s not emo sixth form poetry these days is it, it’s dreadful indie games (Kate S, Twitter).

So grauenhaft wie das und seine anderen Spiele programmiert sind, glaube ich eher dass er diese "schlichte" Aufmachung leider nur wählt weil er es nicht besser kann (Besucher2778, Spreeblick.com).

The meta-game reason for it aside; it does have nice music and visuals, but you can’t use ‘minimalist’ as an excuse for not having any real content. There’d be many ways to take some time and actually give it a point beyond the meta-game point to it. Games can have meanings and messages beyond just being a ‘game,’ but a game must have some sort of rules and goals to it to fulfill its primary purpose as a game. Without that, it doesn’t matter the reasoning or point to it, it’ll just be dull (Pyrewraith, Kongregate).

Lame as fuck (Greg, IndieGames.com comments).

Find a bug? Please let me know

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